Thirty years ago Eire became The Republic of Ireland. What has happened to the promises made then?Over a hundred years of direct British rule in Ireland ended in 1921 when, by agreement between representatives of Irish nationalism and the British Governmnt, on the one hand, and the representatives of that portion of Irish Unionism dominant in north-east Ulster and the British, two separate Irish ‘Home Rule’ governments were set up in Ireland.
The decade immediately preceding this British-enforced compromise had been fraught with political and religious violence which, though deliberately manipulated by the contenders for political power, had its roots in the uneven development of native capitalism.
The ‘settlement’ of Twenty One offered an excellent solution to the owning class in Northern Ireland. Their struggle was waged with the weapons of bluff and religious bigotry. Aside from the slogans, their real aims were their continued access to the British market and avoiding inclusion in an all-Ireland political entity controlled largely by the political representatives of their fledgling class brethren in the south, whose development required protection from the more highly developed competition of British capitalism.
Equally, the ruling class in the new Irish Free State could be jubilant. They had won sufficient political freedom to legislate for their own immediate needs: tariff walls, import quotas and such other devices as would allow for the undisturbed domestic nourishment of ‘competitive free enterprise’. But more, separation from the industrial capitalism of the North eliminated the possibility of opposition to protectionism and had the added bonus of ensuring a useful clerical control over the working class.
The only black spot on this otherwise cloudless horizon were the ‘politics’ that had been fashioned in the struggle. In the South, some of the republicans remained victims of their own propaganda; they continued to believe in their notions of ‘freedom’ and had to be disabused of such nonsense in a short, sharp civil war in which the new Irish Government demonstrated how much they had learnt of the art of military butchery from the departed Black-and-Tans.
In the North, too, the Protestant workers, who were being primed with blood-curdling bigotry in preparation for a possible war against the Catholic nationalists, put their teaching into effect with a murderous assault on their class brethren who were Catholics.
The ‘settlement’ of Twenty One, and the ensuing internecine struggles, set the political pattern for the future. In the Irish Free State the pro-Treaty party became Cumman na nGaedheal (now. Fine Gael) and formed the government. Later, in 1926. the anti-Treaty party became Fianna Fail and established itself as the main opposition party. What passes for stability in capitalism was finally established in the Irish Free State and the way prepared for the illusionary ‘free choice’ offered by capitalist ‘democracy’.
Northern Ireland, on the other hand, had been deliberately fashioned demographically and geographically in such a way as would ensure the permanence of Unionist rule. There, even the illusion of change was to be denied ; there was to be no ‘swing of the pendulum’ to lull the working class into the belief that things, even if they didn’t actually improve, were improvable.
It is amusing, when members of Fine Gael or Fianna Fail condemn their modern counterparts of the IRA as ‘mindless gunmen' and gangsters, to reflect on their own beginnings. The State that the new government took over in 1922 had been established with the bomb and the bullet; by deeds, if we allow for the heinous development of arms manufacture and military strategy, every bit as violent as those we witness today in Northern Ireland. For example, in the first three months of 1921 the ‘old’ (and, now respectable) IRA shot 74 ‘informers’ after trial by what Irish Ministers now refer to as ‘kangaroo’ courts. During the last six months of the Civil War, the new Irish government executed almost twice as many republican ‘irregulars’ as had the British in the previous six years.
The new Government of Cumman na nGaedheal commenced its presidency over general poverty and mass unemployment (which latter, it claimed, was no concern of the State) and ensured that its full support was given to strike-breaking activities. For example, no sooner had the hated British been driven out of the country than the new Irish government was appealing to the British Postmaster General to lend blacklegs to break the Irish postal workers’ strike and when, in the following year, the farm workers struck against the ranchers, the Government obligingly arrested and interned their union leaders.
In 1926 de Valera, who had been the political leader of the ‘Irregulars’ in the Civil War, forsook the bullet and the bomb and entered the Dail. By 1932 his party, Fianna Fail, had won a majority and formed a government. Fianna Fail were to hold office for sixteen years during which it distinguished itself by introducing anti-trade union legislation such as the Wages (Standstill) Order, the Trade Union Bill and the Industrial Relations Bill—all peripherally associated with the social doctrine of Corporatism, the economic infrastructure of fascism and the social gospel of the Roman Catholic Church.
It all worked well--for the class Fianna Fail represented ; known in Ireland as ‘gombeen men’ who had, as yet, to learn the carrot con trick practiced by their more sophisticated brethren in most other European countries. In the eight years between 1940 and 1948 the taxable profits of this upstanding breed of Catholic businessmen rose by some 200 per cent. In the same period, by skilful use of the legislative weapons placed at their disposal by Fianna Fail, they were able to reduce real wages below the level obtaining a decade earlier.: So successful, indeed, were the capitalists and their pensioned government in reducing wages that even the capitalist-orientated International Labour Office drew protesting attention to the fact. Almost 8 per cent of the population escaped in the emigrant ships during this period of Fianna Fail rule; still, deep in their Celtic twilight, the political hacks of capitalism carried on governing for the rich and privileged and the priests prayed their thankfulness for the virginal state of Irish capitalism and the ‘innocence’ of its wage slaves.
Fianna Fail introduced a new Constitution enshrining the power and the privilege of the priests and the gombeen men and, by implication, constitutionalising the misery and poverty of the great majority. In the meanwhile, the political scum who had ruled before De Valera took over, underwent many vicissitudes. After their electoral defeat in 1932, these ‘democrats’ flirted with the Blueshirts, an openly fascist organisation started by their ex-police chief and they changed their alias to Fine Gael. Time, and political manoeuvering, laundered the reputation of Fine Gael somewhat and, in 1948, Fianna Fail were kicked out by the electorate. A coalition, headed by Fine Gael, formed a Government. A new Republican Party, led by an ex-IRA leader of the Thirties, Seán MacBride, and the particularly gutless Irish Labour Party, were Fine Gael’s partners in crime.
It was to be a real change this time! A change guaranteed by the presence of ‘socialists’ and ‘republican-socialists’ actually in government. A change spelt out in the glossy posters of rivers and forests that were going to belong to ‘the people’. It was a time for singing and the people sang: ‘How Can You Buy Killarney?’ Oh, the promises! the hope! the frenetic dedication to the struggle for real change! And, to be fair, there was change: the Government dropped the official title ‘Eire’ and became the Republic of Ireland.
For the Irish workers there was still grinding poverty in all its forms; unemployment, low wages, slums. Only drunken patriotism had a respite in the partial realisation of a dream—and an American businessman did buy part of Killarney—with dollars! But still . . . wasn’t there an enfant terrible in the Government? A real ‘left winger’—and no less a person than the Minister of Health! Sure enough, the Minister introduced a Bill in the Dail to allow ‘free’ medical care for expectant mothers and children up to the age of five years. The Bill would have brought the new republic a small part of the way along which most other European countries had already travelled.
The Catholic bishops, however, would have none of it. It was rank ‘socialism’! The virtue of Christian charity would be endangered and god would be displeased! They ordered the government—the government of the Republic of Ireland—to abandon the Bill. The Government apologised to their lordships and dropped the Bill.
Since 1948, of course, there have been changes. The most significant of these have been brought about by a later, Fianna Fail, Government decision, in the early Sixties, to abandon the economic doctrine of protectionism—which was the lynch pin of Sinn Fein policy before and after the Easter Rising of 1916. It was a final and callous acknowledgement of ‘The Cause’ for which politically ignorant members of the working class had earlier died or suffered imprisonment or maiming.
The history of The Republic of Ireland, which was Eire, which was The Irish Free State, should be studied by those latter-day Republicans who think that their policy of ‘Eire Nua’ offers ’the people’ a real change. Is ‘Eire Nua’ any more ‘revolutionary’ than the ‘Proclamation of 1916 offering all the wealth of Ireland to ‘the people’ of Ireland? We all know what the outcome of that was.
Richard Montague (Belfast)
World Socialist Party of Ireland